The draft report recently issued by the U.S. Department of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education employs some hard-hitting–and fully justified–language when describing the deplorable state of American higher education. “U.S. higher education needs to improve in dramatic ways,” it noted, adding that an “unseemly complacency about the future” has come to dominate higher education. There has been quite an uproar about the report’s uncompromising language, so much so that the uproar has in some quarters displaced the report itself as the newsworthy event. But it’s crucial not to be distracted by debates about “tone”–or, conversely, to dismiss the report as a purely tactical document.
Now is the time to focus on the report’s particulars, and to offer constructive suggestions for how its analyses and recommendations can be made as strong and purposeful as possible. If American higher education is going to continue to deserve public support, it has a long way to go. To ensure that colleges and universities are able to go that distance, the Commission should stand firm in its uncompromising analysis of problems. It should also sharpen its already pointed recommendations.
One of the most significant points the report makes is that if colleges and universities are serious about improving, they “must recommit” to higher education’s “core public purposes.” That’s a historical claim that is worth a closer look. The “core public purposes” have their roots in the World War II era, when Harvard president James Bryant Conant, dissatisfied with the formless notion of education as coursework, began to develop a conception of general education for all Americans. The result was the famous “Red Book” of 1945, which defined general education as a comprehensive process centered on enabling the student to live “as a responsible human being and citizen” by cultivating certain “traits of mind and ways of looking at man and the world.” “A successful democracy,” the Red Book remarked, “demands that these traits and outlooks be shared so far as possible among all the people.” Conant’s vision set the tone for American higher education for the next several generations; colleges and universities across the country took their obligations seriously, and students became the lifelong beneficiaries of a rigorous and coherent core curriculum.
No more. The political upheavals of the 1960s–which tarred the notion of shared, common knowledge with the brush of racism, sexism, and general elitism–combined with years of administrative concessions to faculty more concerned with research and specialization than with teaching or broad, general knowledge, have gutted what was once a robust curriculum. The Commission’s draft report rightly registers the “lack of coherence and lax standards that often characterize the undergraduate curriculum,” noting that vast numbers of universities no longer require students to study American history, Western civilization, math, science, or even writing.
These things are disturbingly true–as ACTA has shown in its report, The Hollow Core (the draft report makes use of this study’s findings on page 14). But it is not enough simply to point these failings out. The Commission should not expect that the rationale for general education is obvious to higher education leaders, administrators, or professors; in many cases, it has been lost along with the core curriculum itself.
The Commission must explain why general education matters to a free society; it should also explain why it’s crucial both to preserving democracy and to ensuring that the U.S. continues to compete globally. Calling for a return to a strong, cohesive core curriculum–and outlining in detail why this is so vital–is the single most important thing the Commission can do. The final report should give a mandate to governors–and to the trustees they appoint–to undertake the difficult but crucial work of reforming our colleges and universities in ways that are genuinely responsive to the national need for well-educated citizens.